French Boys' Clothing: Regional Differences--Alsatian Boy Tomi Ungerer

Figure 1.--This was Tomi's class his first year of school in 1937 a few years before the Germans seized Alsace. There is quite a range of outfits and it looks like the boys were dressed up especially for their class phoyograph. Many boys wear short pants suits, some double breasted. One boy wears a knickers suit and another boy a sailor suit. Many boys wear sweaters and shirts. None of the boys wear smocks. Note the boy in the back who seems to be wearing some sort of youth uniform. He would have been too young even for Cubing. 

Tomi Ungerer has provided us a fascinating view of his Alsatian boyhood during World War II. His Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis was published in 1998) and by describes life in NAZI occupied Alsace from the viewpoint of the author, born in 1931. The book provides a great deal of information about Alsace, quite a lot about daily life under the Nazis, but unfortunately for HBC's perspective, only limited information about about clothing. The illustrations are particularly good; many of these are the work of the author, a talented artist.


Ungerer tells us, "Alsace is wedged between France and Germany, a buffer zone along the Rhine. Its fate and history is unlike that of any other group of people in Europe. Alsatians have a strong identity, yet there is no such thing as an Alsatian race."

"This strip of land between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine, coveted for its wealth and prosperity, as well as for its strategic position, was at various timew throughout history controlled by either the Germans or the French."

"Having to adapt ourselves to constant changes has given the Alsatians a great sense of insecurity. To whom do we belong? We turned into chameleons, changing colors - or languages - to survive."

"Alsace never won or lost a war - our neighbors did, using us as cannon fodder. Alsatians loathe violence, for whoever suffers inflicted wars seeks peace. Peace is good for business, and as the "Germans"of France (which is better than being the "French" of Germany), Alsatians have, after Parisians, the highest per capita income - and the most Michelin stars - of any French region."

Alsace in World War II

The Germans regained Alsace-Loraine in 1940 and began a process of Germanizing the population with the elimination of the French language and culture. There were forced relocations and soon drafts in to the German labor squads and military. Teachers were replaced or reducated in the Reich. Instruction was now in German and speaking French not permitted. Alsatian is close to German, but French speaking children were facd with the difficult task of learning German. The beret was banned anmd wearing one was made a criminal offense. One Alsatian boy reported that his first school homework assignment was to draw a Jew. Just as the French had not trusted the Alsatians, neither did the Germans. The village of Oradour sur Glane in Alscae was the scene of one of the most vicious German attrocities during the War, even though it was at the time a part of the Reich. It would seem unlikely that boys going to the NAZI-controlled schools in either would have worn smocks during this era of German control. France finally regained the provinces with the Allied victories in 1944.

Tomi's Family

Tomi's family is a good example of the complexities at play in Alsace. The family name, Ungerer, is obviously German. Tomi is descended from a family of clockmakers who had settled in Strasbourg several centuries before his birth. (Tomi does not include this information in his book, however. Ungerer has a website, and there is where we found this out. His full name by the way is Jean-Thomas Ungerer, and he was born on November 28, 1931.) Tomi's mother's name was Alice Essler, another German name. He writes much about his mother, and this passage is especislly interesting: "My mother was born and raised in the house in Logelbach (an industrial suburb near Colmar in Alsace) in the time of Kaiser Wilhelm, when Alsace was German. She had perfectly romantic recollections of those 'good old times,' which ended with the First World War, yet she always considered herself French - a patriot, a chauvinist, more French than the French. She was practically allergic to the Germans, but that didn't keep her from writing poetry in Goethe's language, and reclaiming large excerpts from prose and poetry, as if on stage. She was infused with the poetry of the German Romantics. She wrote well (her French sometimes extravagant) and she also spoke Alsatian." (Alsatian is a decidedly German dialect.) The family spoke French at home and Tomi grew up speaking French.

Tomi's Situation

"When my father died (the author was 3 years old), my mother was left indigent. In school I had no friends, my clothes were shabby, and I was shy if not terrified." He was also coddled by an indulgent mother who did not want him to play with the neigborhood children. He was sent to a Catholic school even though his mother did not like Catholics so that he would not associate with the ordinary children and pick up bad habits. This changed in 1940 with the arrival og the Germans. Tomi had to quickly learned German as all schooling henceforth had to be in German. He also had to go to the neighborhood school. The Catholics schools were closed or made state schools. This meant that for the first time Tomi could play woth the neighborhood children.

Tomi's Clothing

"I was my sisters' toy. We had an illustrated edition of "Little Lord Fauntleroy" that turned out to be a source of inspirationto my sisters. With old bits of cloth and the help of the Singer sewing machine they created for me the 'cutest' outfit, with puffed sleeves and lace. After curling my hair they deposited me at school the next morning. What for my mother and sisters was the most beguiling and charming ensemble provoked a unanimous uproar of jeers and catcalls from my schoolmates. I was the sissy of the class. I went blind with rage and kicked one boy in the knee, for which I was severely punished." [HBC note: The author does not state his age when this happened, but as it was at the beginning of school you would guess about 6 years old.]

Figure 1.--The Alsatiant students by 1945-46 were back to French. Tomi intensely disliked his French teacher shown here. Most of the boys wear suits, many long pants suits. Tomi like several other boys contiues to wear short pants. These boys would have been about 14-15 years old. 

Other Clothing

The book is well illustrated with school photos. A class picture from his first year in school about 1937 when the author was proably 6 years old shows most of the boys wearing suits or sweaters, short pants, and knee socks. Alsace at the time was under French control, but none of the boys wear smocks. In most French schools in other provinces at least some of the boys almost ceratinly would jhave worn smocks to school. In the photo the knee socks appear to be mostly light to medium grey, though one boy wears white knee socks. There is one boy wearing a patterned sweater, and some are wearing dress (suit) coats over their sweaters. The coats with one exception are double-breasted; one of the boys' coats has a belt in front. A few wear ties, also. A few of the boys are wearing suits, the others wear a coat not matched to their short trousers. One boy wears dark knickers, a double-breasted grey coat and a tie. One boy wears a sailor suit. The shoes are dark leather lace-ups; one pair is rather high-topped. A boy in the back seems to be wearing some sort of youth uniform. He would have been too young even for Cubing.

Interestingly, his class picture, dated 1945-46, shows the boys of about 14-15 years of age in long trousers and unmatched coats and ties. The smaller or at least the younger looking students in the class are wearing shorts and knee socks with unmatched coats (one coat looks to be an "Eisenhower jacket" - a waist length coat popularized by Ike. A few of the boys wear sweaters over shirts; all wear leather laceup shoes.

Hitler Youth

One interesting aspect of Tomi's account concerns the Hitler Youth (HJ). After the NAZI take over, all Alsatian children had to join the Hitler Youth. This included both French and German speaking Alsatians. Tomi should have joined, but his mother hated the NAZIs and would not let him. When HJ leaders would call to get Tomi, his mother would put him in bed and pretend that he was sick. (They would often come on Sunday to take boys away from Chirch and Church activities.) It is a little unclear what Tomi himself would have liked. His drawings show a mixture od support and distaste for the NAZIs. He does say that he envied his friends marching off "in splendid uniforms" for games and sports. Like German boys, the uniforms were a powerful attraction. In Germany parents had to buy the uniforms. In Alsace they were habded out free as part of the Germinization pricess. But what Tomi wanted even more than the uniform was the Hitler Youth dagger with its motto--Blut und Ehre ("Blood and Honor"). The appeal of the HJ even to boys of anti-NAZI families, in this case a French boy was not uncommon. HBC has noted even boys from demonized racial groups such as the Jews and blacks were moved by NAZI pagentry and retoric and would have liked to have been allowed to join the HJ.

Tomi's Book

Tomi Ungerer's book Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis (Tomi Co.: Boulder, 1999) provides a fascinating view of his Alsatian boyhood during World War II. HBC readers who are interested in the World War II period will find the wonderfully illustrated book engrossing. Unlike many World War II accounts, there are no horrendous atrocities depicted, although an easily read post card Tomi sent in childhood innosence could have had disastrous results for his family. It does provide insights as to how families in Germany and France managed to survive the War. It is especially interesting to HBC because it is achild's view of the War and the prople around him, wonderfully captured in Tomi's childhood drawings paired interspersced with actual photographs and postcards. The book provides many interesting insights as to how boys dressed during the War.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: January 18, 2002
Last updated: February 16, 2002